Turkish army commandos walk on a snow-capped summit in the mountains near the southeastern Turkish town of Sirnak, bordering northern Iraq, February 24, 2008.
Fatih Saribas / Reuters

At times, the battle against the Islamic State (ISIS) has seemed to hinge on the 560-mile line that divides Turkey and Syria. The United States and Russia have frequently urged Ankara to seal off its southern border in order to cut off supplies and volunteers destined for the radical group. For much of the conflict, Turkish officials have responded coolly to such calls. Some have argued that closing off the border is impossible. ISIS has seized significant portions of territory on the Syrian side of the perimeter, and walling off, or manning, such a distance would be expensive and require a huge number of security personnel. Further, stopping all traffic out of Syria would also mean turning away refugees en masse.

Some critics, including the likes of Vladimir Putin and opposition leader Selahettin Demirtaş, have argued that other factors play a role in Ankara’s approach toward its southern border. Turkey both openly and secretly supports elements of the Syrian opposition, activities that would be difficult if the border were closed. There are economic considerations as well; satellite images released in 2015 by Russia’s Defense Ministry seemed to show that Turkey is still selling petroleum via its southern frontier. Turkey and ISIS, Russian officials have argued, are in alliance in trying to make a buck. There are doubts about Russia’s charges—especially since part of the trade goes through Syrian Kurdish territory—yet evidence of other illicit dealings along the border and the continued passage of ISIS volunteers through Turkey continue to stir cynicism. The city of Gaziantep, as one local activist put it, practically functions as a “human resource center” for the ISIS.

Sawssan Abdelwahab, who fled Idlib in Syria, walks with her children outside the refugees camp near the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern city of Yayladagi, February 16, 2012.
Sawssan Abdelwahab, who fled Idlib in Syria, walks with her children outside the refugees camp near the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern city of Yayladagi, February 16, 2012.
Zohra Bensemra / Reuters

To genuinely appreciate Ankara’s struggle to maintain and police its southern border with Syria, it is worth going back further than the current conflict. Since the Turkish Republic was born in 1923, the politics and economy of the Syrian frontier have vexed politicians and provincial residents alike.


Unlike many borders in the Middle East, the one between Syria and Turkey was imposed with Turkish consent. Ankara officially recognized it in the summer of 1923 with the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne, the agreement that ended hostilities between the Allied victors of World War I and the nascent government of Turkey. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s first president, asserted that the line was suitable since it represented the final positions occupied by Ottoman troops in 1918. More importantly, Ankara insisted that the line more or less accurately delineated the ethnic divide between Turkish and Arab peoples.

Such logic, of course, may have simply been a rationalization of Turkey’s weak negotiating stance with France, Syria’s mandate overlord. But in the decade and a half that followed Lausanne, Ankara did respect the border, working to expand and entrench the state’s hold over the frontier. In 1938, France agreed to cede the Syrian province of Alexandretta (contemporary Hatay) to Turkey in recognition of the region’s sizable Turkish-speaking population. To bolster the Turkish majority in Hatay and other border provinces, Ankara forcibly removed some local tribes and resettled the region with internally displaced Balkan, Turkish and Arab populations. Through careful government oversight, Ankara hoped, the entire country would become more Turkish-speaking, more sedentary, and more unquestionably loyal to the state’s and nation’s interests.

The effort to “Turkify” those living along the border never quite achieved the expected results. It proved impossible to force settlers to remain in assigned lands or town. Many of the communities that had been expelled from the frontier eventually returned. As a result, the border remains linguistically and socially diverse. Even nomadism, to some extent, endured. By the time World War II ended, Turkey and Syria were compelled to agree upon a “pasavan” system, in which select individuals and communities were allowed to pass back and forth across the frontier (often without any controls). In turn, Ankara’s policy of demographic re-engineering and Turkification fundamentally failed to keep the population in line.

Syrian refugees wait for transportation after crossing into Turkey from the Syrian town of Tal Abyad, near Akcakale in Sanliurfa province, Turkey, June 10, 2015.
Syrian refugees wait for transportation after crossing into Turkey from the Syrian town of Tal Abyad, near Akcakale in Sanliurfa province, Turkey, June 10, 2015.
Osman Orsal / Reuters


Since 1923, ideologues and lawmakers have equated the task of Turkifying the border with nationalizing the economy. For most of the country’s history, state agencies tightly controlled trade and industry. Until the 1980s, Ankara remained faithful to a policy of import substitution as a means to strengthen domestic manufacturers and cultivators. Important national commodities, such as tea, tobacco, opium, and nuts, were tightly regulated or monopolized by government agencies.

Generating national wealth and economic development was only part of the goal. Borrowing heavily from principles first conceived by late Ottoman nationalists, Turkish administrators long believed that the state needed to nurture and strengthen “a culture of trade” among Turkey’s Muslim majority. The fact that non-Muslims tended to dominate international commerce and manufacturing was deemed intrinsically threatening to the state, since Greek traders and Armenian producers were seen as sympathetic to the West and their own interests. The creation of an exclusively Muslim-dominated economy thus entailed the outright destruction of Anatolia’s historically predominant Armenian and Greek merchant class. Between 1912 and 1923, non-Muslim communities were systemically marginalized, eradicated, or displaced along what became the Syrian border, leaving much of the land and native industries in Muslim hands.

Successive governments have succeeded in Turkifying the country’s trading and manufacturing base, but internal and external factors have fundamentally undermined the economic viability of Ankara’s statist policies. Nowhere have the failings of Turkish economic planning been more apparent than along the border with Syria. From the outset of the republican era, effectively policing trade in key commodities proved impossible. For example, farmers resisted state mandates governing the cultivation and sale of pistachio (one of Gaziantep’s main industries) from the start.

Meanwhile, domestic need for certain goods (such as nylons in the past), as well as foreign desire for certain Turkish commodities (such as meat, dairy products, and tea) made towns in the area, particularly Kilis, notorious for their open-air contraband bazaars. Of all the illicit commodities to cross the Syrian frontiers, it has been the trade in opiates (be it raw opium or refined heroin) that has drawn the greatest amount of international attention and ire. Despite ever expanding oversight and prohibitions, Ankara has struggled to prevent the flow of narcotics across its southern frontier.

Smugglers carrying blue jerry cans on horses ride back to Syria along the wire fences after ferrying fuel smuggled into Turkey, 2013.
Smugglers carrying blue jerry cans on horses ride back to Syria along the wire fences after ferrying fuel smuggled into Turkey, 2013.
Umit Bektas / Reuters

There never appears to have been a time when Ankara was unaware of its failed policies. Going back to the 1920s, government officials considered smuggling along the Syrian border to be among the gravest challenges to the state and the national economy. Like with other challenges to Ankara’s authority, illicit trading along the border was often painted as an ethnic problem. At various times, politicians and ministers heaped blame on minority Kurds, as well as Circassians and Arabs, for violations. Internally, however, at least some officials acknowledged that smuggling was more the result of domestic and foreign policies. According to an in-depth study commissioned by the Interior Ministry, Turkish officials recognized that the “pasavan” system naturally gave rise to the illicit movement of goods and people across the border. It was equally apparent that price controls and import restrictions in Syria and Turkey had a hand in elevating demand and spurring local initiative.

In the face of such persistent challenges to government economic policy, Ankara has never flinched from using force. Since 1923, Turkish security forces have killed thousands of armed and unarmed smugglers along the Syrian border (and undoubtedly arrested tens of thousands more). At various times the government has walled, dug trenches, and even mined portions of the frontier in order deter illegal traffic. Violence along the border proved pervasive; “If you see a young man in Kilis with a limp,” according to one local adage, “he’s a smuggler; if you see an old man with a limp, he fought with Atatürk.”

Administrative and economic reforms undertaken since the 1980s have only partially helped. The country’s transition to a liberal economy (which has included the privatization of state-owned industries and the abolition of some state monopolies) has reduced or eliminated the trade of some illicit products on the border, particularly more durable consumer goods. However, continued economic crisis and demand in Syria (as well as Iraq) has helped create new markets. The disintegration of the Iraqi economy since 1991, followed by the outbreak of civil war in Iraq and Syria, has revamped illegal exports of a great host of domestic and imported goods to markets south of Turkey. The Turkish Interior Ministry estimates that trafficking in fuel, cellphones, medicine, narcotics, and other items has skyrocketed.

In turn, the Turkish government has invested heavily in reorganizing and expanding the nation’s law enforcement agencies. Ankara has established new government bureaus responsible for the maintenance of border checkpoints (the Office of the Border Gates, founded in 2014) and has upgraded the Office of Smuggling and Organized Crime (created in 1980).

At the same time, however, government intervention has hurt border controls. The initiation of the so-called 25 December Case, in which the sons of the several prominent AKP ministers were arrested on corruption and smuggling charges, led Erdogan’s government to gut the Office of Smuggling and Organized Crime (arguably in retaliation for attempting to bring down the government). Since 2014, hundreds of policemen employed by the office have been dismissed, forced to retire, or internally transferred on charges of aiding a plot to overthrow the government.

It is still not entirely clear what effect this has had on law enforcement on the Syrian border. However, Ankara’s recent decision to lift all restrictions on carrying cash at the border suggests that Erdogan’s government is unconcerned about the flow of money in and out of the country. Meanwhile, Turkey’s Armed Forces have taken on an increasing amount of responsibility in policing traffic across the border. Logs issued by the military indicate that soldiers interdict and arrest scores of people on a daily basis, but it is anyone’s guess what the numbers actually mean. As with many pressing issues, Turkish media often does little more than report government statements and statistics.

Bulgarian customs officers make a test on 321 packages of high-purity heroin which was found at the Kapitan Andreevo border crossing with Turkey, February 10, 2001.
Bulgarian customs officers make a test on 321 packages of high-purity heroin which was found at the Kapitan Andreevo border crossing with Turkey, February 10, 2001.


One question many journalists are certainly afraid to ask out loud is who exactly profits from the lawlessness of Turkey’s border with Syria. In fact, one may speculate that the list of potential benefactors may be very long. Politicians have historically ranked among the more powerful patrons of illicit trade. The case of Abdullah Cilli, who represented Hatay in the Grand National Assembly during much of the twentieth century, is instructive. In the early 1970s, U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency DEA agents privately accused him of masterminding heroin trafficking along the border. When the charges surfaced in the press, the head of the Turkey’s Interior Ministry himself came to Cilli’s aid, calling the allegations groundless. Whether current civic leaders are involved in the trade or not, it should surprise no one that men and women from various walks of life profit from smuggling. The movement of illicit goods, both in the past and present, is the life blood of Turkey’s border economy.

Turkey’s troubled border history suggests that local and regional factors have amplified, but did not cause, contemporary illicit trafficking along Turkish–Syrian border. It is unfair to accuse Ankara of being inactive when it comes to policing border. If anything, the Turkish government has consistently approached the area with a rigid set of political, economic, and social priorities. At the same time, its ideological goals and tactics have either stymied or undermined the execution of its own policies. With this in mind, Ankara’s apparent failures at the border are more understandable. Closing the border might really be impossible; and even if it were, doing so would undoubtedly harm the national economy and potentially expose the Turkish state as administratively weak, ideologically fragile, or worse still, corrupt.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • RYAN GINGERAS is an Associate Professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He is the author most recently of Heir to the Empire: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
  • More By Ryan Gingeras